For Indian women, safety comes at the expense of freedom. But now women’s groups across the country are launching initiatives that assert their equal right to public spaces
Earlier this year, Nabiha Tasnim rang in Independence Day by joining a group of women walking across Delhi through the night. “I’ve gone out late at night before this, but it was always goal-oriented — I’d finish my work and come back home,” she says. “There is always pressure to keep family informed. But women should be able to exercise their choices, and if our desire is to take a walk at 11pm, we should be able to do it without worrying,” she says. Tasnim, a consultant who lives in Himachal Pradesh, came down to Delhi for this initiative.
This week, a brutal rape and murder in Hyderabad provoked widespread outrage about women’s safety, with advisories and guidelines asking women not to work late. But in the last few years, women have been demanding something else — their equal right to public space and transport at all times of the day.
Their projects seek to normalise the presence of women in public areas. It is time women stop feeling scared, says Mumbai-based children’s author and theatre practitioner Neha Singh. “The reason these rapes happen is that spaces are isolated. The more women there are in public spaces the better it is for everyone — women, children and minorities.”
In 2014, Singh started the Why Loiter campaign to encourage women to reclaim public spaces through night-time walks, antaksharis in trains and sleeping in parks, after being inspired by a book of the same name. Over a thousand women have taken part. Similar initiatives have begun in Pune and Jaipur, as well as the Women Walk at Midnight Project in Delhi that Tasnim was a part of. “When a rape happens, everyone is angry and goes for a protest and that’s it,” Singh says. “But if people get used to seeing women on the road doing their own thing, wearing what they want, and being visible and vocal, then that is going to lead to change.”
Many participants who come for the walk regularly sense an internal change and start believing that the city belongs to them too. “They start challenging their own notions of safety, fear and risktaking,” Singh says. “They wouldn’t have tea at a roadside tapri earlier, but now they do.” Many women share photos of themselves lying on a bench, or talking to a stranger on the Why Loiter WhatsApp group.
These walks also change the attitudes of people watching the women, adds Singh. “A lot of men ask us: why are you roaming at night, while police officials think we’re sex workers. We ask them: you’re also roaming around, right? If men follow us, we introduce ourselves and start a conversation. It turns out they are regular people who’ve had no interactions with women and simply don’t know how to talk to them.”
In Delhi, Tasnim’s midnight walk helped see her a new, calmer side of the city, and made her more confident when she goes out on her own. “For a lot of women fending for their families, these places need to be safe to ensure their right to livelihood,” she says.
Bengaluru-based collective Blank Noise has been encouraging women across the country to inhabit public spaces through night walks and ‘I Never Ask For It’ marches, where women carry the clothes they were wearing when they experienced sexual assault or intimidation. One of their ongoing campaigns #MeetToSleep encourages participants to nap in public parks, an act that is unthinkable for women who are always told to be cautious.
Founder Jasmeen Patheja says that the project stemmed from her own experience of fear. “The act of sleeping creates a new positive memory, rooted not in fear but in collective action and knowing that this has happened,” she says. Blank Noise, along with allies, will hold sessions of #MeetToSleep and the ‘I Never Ask For It’ march across India on December 15 and 19.
Bengaluru-based college student Shruti Chandrashekhar was initially nervous but was eventually able to fall asleep in a park. “It was eye-opening because the only people you see sleeping in public places are men,” she says. “It’s not something you get to experience as a woman in India”. She has participated in several such meets, even falling asleep at a Goa beach on her own in 2018.
“The question is, how do we feminise public spaces, because if you have more women in public spaces, then they become safer,” says Kalpana Vishwanath, founder of Safetipin, which collaborated with municipal authorities in Delhi this week to host a two-night street festival to encourage women to step out. She adds that infrastructure, such as good lighting and pedestrian-friendly walkable areas, plays an important role in improving safety. The feeling of vulnerability makes women unequal citizens, Vishwanath says. “We continue to tell women what to do, when the problem is men. Women don’t want protection but the right to be out and to take the opportunities that cities offer as much as everyone else. Women are told to get off the street, but no, we must be out on it.”
TOI did a quick test of 10 safety apps
There are many different personal safety apps targeted towards women in the market right now. But, do they really deliver what they claim?
Claims to be able to detect screams but even their most sensitive sensor did not hear screams when the phone is in one’s pocket. They did send the location to an emergency contact, but the location was incorrect by a whopping 3km
Woman Safety Shield App
Using this app, one can alert an emergency contact in case of emergency or if they’re feeling unsafe. It takes a picture using the front and back camera and one’s location and emails it to the contact. It took a few attempts for this to be successful, but email isn’t the promptest medium
Safetipin | Rates areas according to usergenerated safety scores, and indicates safe travel routes. It is meant to allow a contact to track your location, but did not call or text the emergency contact on one occasion, but worked the second time
Go Safe Nirbhaya
The app allows you to click a picture of the license plate of a cab as well as the driver, and it stores this data in case your phone gets taken. May come in useful for evidence (if the authorities figure out you have the app!) but is not of much immediate use to someone in trouble
The app has a panic button that one can press, but upon doing so, every dialog box only leads to the assumption that you are now safe
Himmat Plus by Delhi Police
Using this app, one can raise a ‘panic’ alert to Delhi Police.
Someone called TOI back in a minute offering to dispatch an officer
It requires either a premium subscription worth Rs 169/a week or Rs 5,900/a year or unlocks its services for 24 hours for Rs 79. The services behind this paywall include a tracker and SOS button. While it is fair for apps to charge people for services, expecting people to issue a payment during an emergency is ridiculous
Once you add an emergency contact, the app says it sends video and audio of where you are as well as your location to them. But, when TOI tested this, it did not send anything
Raksha | An Androidonly app, it makes one list two emergency contacts but did not contact either after saying they had been alerted
This app simply does not let one create an account, citing a ‘database error’